Thursday, July 07, 2022

Barmy in Wonderland by P.G. Wonderland

First up: Barmy is a person. For those with a knowledge of P.G. Wodehouse, or the traditional naming conventions of the British public-school class, this may not be surprising.

Second: Wonderland is not a place. Or not literally. It refers to the theatrical world, in particular Broadway, perhaps closer to the '20s when Wodehouse worked extensively there than to the 1952 when this novel was published.

That out of the way, let me tell you about Barmy in Wonderland, in which a young man from Blighty trades up from being a hotel desk clerk in rural Maine to being a big-time Broadway producer, owner of most of a play that could be the hottest thing of the season but equally could be a horrible mess that will inevitably flop. The man is Cyril Fotheringay-Phipps; "Fotheringay" is pronounced "Fungy" and the whole mess is usually replaced with "Barmy," his old school nickname.

As the novel opens, Barmy has just come into an inheritance, due to the timely death of one of those random uncles who so often die in a timely way in novels like this.

And speaking of "as the novel opens," here's how it actually does:

J.G. Anderson took up the telephone.

'Give me the desk,' he said.

They gave him the desk.

'Hello?' said the desk.

'Phipps? This is Mr Anderson."

'Well, well, well,' cried the desk, baying like a pleased bloodhound on the train of aniseed. 'Good old Anderson! Splendid old Anderson! The top of the morning to you, bright and bounding J.G. But this isn't Phipps. Phipps has stepped out to put ice on his head. He is sick of a fever. This is Potter, old pal. P. with an O., O. with a T., T. with an E., E. with an R. Potter.'

'Potter!' muttered Mr. Anderson gratingly, as if the name had hurt him in a sensitive spot. He replaced the receiver and sat back in his chair. His eyes had closed. He seemed to be praying.

So this is Wodehouse in top form. It's a short book, but crammed full of incident and amusing, often larger-than-life, characters. Barmy himself, and even his beloved-at-first-sight, Eileen "Dinty" Moore, come across a little more pedestrian than the parade of Byronian actors, rapacious producers, cold-eyed lawyers, sophisticated directors, and odd random hangers-on, but that does help them to center the story, so I can't count it a flaw.

The plot is the usual Wodehouse soufflĂ©, in which Barmy gets the chance to invest in a play because of a borderline scam and then things escalate from there, with the play (Sacrifice - Wodehouse describes the plot and it sounds absolutely horrible in a very funny way) alternating from the worst thing possible to an absolutely guaranteed hit with every new complication. I wouldn't dream of spoiling the details: this novel is only 226 pages long and reads quickly.

Barmy in Wonderland isn't, I think, on anyone's list of the greatest Wodehouse novels. But it's really funny, about something Wodehouse knew deeply and could ring great changes on, and zips along at pace from beginning to end. It's somewhere in the upper quarter or tenth of Wodehouse books, which is really damn good.

And, for a much tinier audience, it's also an interesting parallax to his memoir Bring On the Girls, written with his theatrical collaborator Guy Bolton, about their own Broadway years, written at almost exactly the same time.

No comments:

Post a Comment